Friday, October 18, 2013

Watkins Dam ("Willard Bay") – Reclaiming fresh, from eventual salt water

                     Willard Bay, as seen from Willard Peak.                              Photo by Liz Arave Hafen

By Lynn Arave

WOULD you like to go fishing, or boating at northern Utah’s Watkins Dam?
Where’s that? What?
Sometimes, popular usage over time can supersede official titles …
We’re talking Willard Bay here, but its original name was Arthur V. Watkins Dam or Watkins Bay.
The nearby town of Willard and/or Willard Peak soon became the water reservoir’s official  namesake, by popular reference.
(In fact, one of the few places you will find the Watkins name used today is on the Bureau of Reclamation's official Web site.)
Willard Bay, residing 11 miles northwest of Ogden and adjacent to the Great Salt Lake, is often taken for granted. But this artificial treasure has a history worth examining.
However, it is surprising how little of it is in the history books, or accessible via Google.
Thanks to some additional information supplied by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, here’s the scoop on “Willard Bay” …
This water project was authorized by an act of Congress on August 29, 1949. It was U.S. Senator Arthur V. Watkins (R-Utah) who worked to create funding for this project.
It became a 14.5-mile-long, rough rectangle shaped dike structure which impounds surplus fresh water from reaching the Great Salt Lake. Some 17 million cubic yards of material were used to create the dam.

 The earthen dike material used in the project is highly compressible. So in order to allow maximum time for settlement, the dam was constructed in three stages over a period of more than 7 years.  The dam was built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and completed in 1964.  Essentially a dike was created. The salt water was drained out and fresh water was then stored inside.
In 1990, a fourth stage of construction entailed restoring the dike crest to its original 4,235 feet above sea level (about 36 feet high), following even more additional, yet anticipated settlement of the foundation.
Surplus water from the Weber River and its tributaries, which cannot be controlled by mountain reservoirs, as well as winter releases through Gateway and Wanship Powerplants and other private utilities, normally would flow into the Great Salt Lake.  This surplus water is diverted from the Weber River at the Slaterville Diversion Dam, located west of Ogden, and carried north 8 miles by the Willard Canal into Willard Bay Reservoir. To meet project needs, water can be returned in the summer from Willard Bay Reservoir to the Weber River and into the Layton Pumping Plant intake channel, as needed, for irrigation of lands lying along the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
About 5 miles north along the diversion canal, a turnout can also divert water into the Plain City Canal, a privately owned irrigation system.

Water can also be released to the Harold Crane Wildlife Management Area and to Great Salt Lake Minerals through a siphon outlet at the southwest corner of the Willard Bay dike. 
Willard Bay Reservoir is the lowest reservoir of the Weber River system. It averages 19 feet in depth and as much as 36 feet.
Willard Bay can hold a maximum of 215,120 acre feet of water (almost twice that of Pineview). Among the Bureau of Reclamation’s 25 dams in Utah, only Flaming Gorge and Jordanelle reservoirs can hold more water.
Operation and Maintenance of the dam was turned over to the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District in 1968.
Creating Willard Bay meant the loss of some farmland dating back to the pioneer era. Unlike most area settlements, Willard (originally known as “Willow Creek”) had most of its farmland on its fringes, rather than its interior.
 Notwithstanding, Willard Bay’s creation eventually led to a multiplication of much more new farmland in northern Utah, thanks to the additional water available.
Principal agriculture products that are sustained, or aided, by its irrigation water are: fruit, vegetables, potatoes, alfalfa, grains and livestock.
 Willard Bay State Park came along in 1966. The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation maintains facilities at the site.for picnicking. Willard Bay Reservoir is used for camping, picnicking, swimming, boating, water skiing, and fishing for Wipers, Walleye, Channel Catfish, Black Crappie, Smallmouth Bass, Bluegill, Common Carp, Largemouth Bass, and Yellow Perch.
The view of the rocky spires on the mountainside above Willard Bay is also simply incredible too.
Willard Bay is at its most stunning, though, from the view atop Willard Peak. Its blueness contrasts sharply with the surrounding briny waters of the Great Salt Lake.
Over the decades, there have been considerations to dike off other areas of the east side of the Great Salt Lake and divert surplus water into similar fresh water reservoirs. No others have ever happened, so Willard Bay remains Utah’s lone Great Salt Lake side reservoir.
And, funding for a feasibility study to see if Willard Bay itself could be expanded even more, recently failed to gain approval.

(-Originally published by Lynn Arave in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on May 16, 2014.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

1 comment:

  1. An amazing and fascinating creation. It prevented fresh water from being wasted into a dead sea, which is The Great Salt Lake.